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Nous tous! Australia and France go to the polls and then we focus on Roland Garros

Updated: Apr 19, 2022

The political terms left and right wing were coined when what became known as the Tennis Court oath was taken during the French Revolution on 20 June 1789. Members of the Third Estate met on the Royal Tennis Court of the Versailles palace. They advocated the establishment of parliamentary democracy and assembled to the left of the chair. The conservatives who sought to preserve the divine rights of monarchs assembled to the right. A core political vocabulary was born.

In a fortnight the French people will vote in the second and final Presidential ballot to decide who will be their President for the next five years. Deja vu again as incumbent Emmanuel Macron will again be challenged by the Marine Le Pen as was the case in 2017 in a centrist vs far-right contest. It is likely that France's left wing voters, whose candidate did not qualify for the decisive contest, will support President Macron to prevent their right wing nemesis being elected.

On the day after the forthcoming Australian election on 21st May, the world’s tennis players will gather at Roland Garros’ tennis courts to begin the French Open. In the weeks ahead the political and sporting stakes on and off the court in France and Australia will be great.

For once, political and sporting events in France may be more straightforward than those in Australia. More predictions later.

First, let us remember how blessed we are to have the type of democratic contest that we will have in Australia. The 46th Federal Parliament was dissolved peacefully by writ of the Governor-General acting on the advice of the Prime Minister. The governed, without qualification about age, sex, sexuality, gender, religion, or wealth, will, in secret, and within fair and equal electorates, elect their governors. When one compares this orderliness with the crumbling democracies of Sri Lanka and Pakistan, an Australian voter cannot feel other than blessed. Sri Lanka’s political and economic system has collapsed so badly that there is not enough paper to print school and university examinations. An established democratic culture exists in Australia, yet in many countries such surety is as elusive as ever. Let us also not forget that the attacks on the US Congress in the wake of the 2020 Presidential election were only in January last year.

Yet nothing seems quite as elusive as the hopes of peace and true democracy coming to Ukraine and Russia. The political contests of France and Australia in 2022 are bagatelles compared to the horrors of Russia’s invasion of the blighted Ukraine. If ever a country deserved to “be liberated from the liberators” it is Ukraine. Where will it all end? Tragically, Putin’s attack has all the hallmarks of a tiring dictator seeking to create his fantasist vision of an uber State. The struggle has become protracted and inhumane in ways we cannot comprehend. To contemplate the plight of the millions of Ukrainians who are now displaced, homeless and refugees is numbing. History tells us that Putin will not calmly walk out of his bunker expressing contrition. The West hopes that sanctions and military support, but not presence, will defy Putin his reckless ambition.

Russia’s Daniil Medvedev took over as the world’s No.1 ranked tennis player on the day of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In doing so, he ended Novak Djokovic’s record reign of 361 weeks as no.1 and became the first player other than Nadal, Djokovic, Federer, or Murray to hold the ranking since 2004. Uneasy is the head that wears the Crown! Medvedev has failed to win a tournament since becoming the 27th player since 1973 to be ranked No.1. Djokovic, in the absence of vaccination and tournament play, has returned to the No.1 ranking. Recently, Medvedev has announced a two month break from the tour because of a hernia. His pain and agony are a metaphor for his nation.

Even in democracies moments of equanimity are rare. Mother Nature often sees to that. Since the Australian Open, New South Wales and much of south-east Queensland have been saturated by flooding rains. There has been one brief shining moment of natural harmony: in Melbourne on 2nd February 2022 at 2.22 p.m. the temperature was 22 degrees.

Mother Nature’s permanent jolt is our mortality. Capulet reminds us that “we were born to die.” Shock still abounds when we do. Australians were stunned by the recent death of its cricketing hero, Shane Warne, at 52. He was a prodigious sporting talent who lived a prodigious life in all regards. Warne, ubiquitously known to the nation as ‘Warnie’ was the ocker sporting king of our national sport par excellence.

Days after his passing, a Victorian Labor Senator, Kimberley Kitching, died prematurely, also aged fifty-two. Her death refocussed attention on the culture and pressures of our national Parliament and political parties. Senator Kitching had a keen interest in foreign affairs and would have been saddened by the recent death of America’s first female Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright. Secretary Albright, in turn, did not live long enough to see confirmation of the appointment of America’s first black female Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, Ketanji Brown Jackson.

In the sporting world, retirement is a form of professional passing. Some have retirement forced upon them by injury. Juan Martin del-Potro, the giant and kindly Argentinian, has announced his body can take no more.

Like Andy Roddick, his only Grand Slam triumph was in New York, winning the US Open in 2009. del-Potro has a legitimate claim to fame. By winning that title he remains the only player to have played alongside Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic in the semi-finals of a Grand Slam tournament and to have trumped them all.

Some choose retirement, even at the most improbable moments. Fresh from exorcising a nation’s agonies by winning the Australian Open, Ashleigh Barty announced her retirement from the game at 25. The nation seemed divided between those wishing her well and supporting her decision and those ruing the chance to vicariously enjoy Barty’s further tennis glories. Twenty-five was also the age Bjorn Borg walked away from the game after 11 Grand Slam victories. Like Barty, he failed to win the US Open, retiring after John McEnroe beat him in the 1981 final.

Tasmania’s Premier, Peter Gutwein, also announced his retirement after barely two years in the role. Not for him the tenacity of John Howard who took eleven years to reach The Lodge and then served another eleven and half.

Some resist retirement. The tenacious Nadal has had his best start to a tennis year, with only a pectoral injury halting his juggernaut in the final of the Indian Well Masters. Roger Federer, despite persistent knee injuries, refuses to utter the ‘r ’ word, even as the shadows on his 40th birthday in August draw closer. The Queen, a mere ninety-five, (turning 96 on April 21) and celebrating a unique Platinum jubilee, appears equally unimpressed by the thought of retirement, even following a bout of Covid. Sydney Harbour’s Bridge recently turned ninety and will never be allowed to retire!

The temperaments and outlooks of tennis players and the millions that make up the electorates of nations are not capable of precise definition or standardisation. At least the Grand Slam tournaments have now agreed that all will play a ‘first to ten tiebreak’ fifth set to decide a Grand Slam final!

The French people have another fortnight to consider who should be their next President, the same time it takes a Grand Slam field of 128 to discover its champions.

It is a truth of politics that whoever gains a democratic victory makes a promise “to govern for all people, even for those who did not vote for us.” President Macron is campaigning with the slogan ‘Nous tous,’ meaning “for all of us.” In Australia, unlike France, we have compulsory voting, meaning all should vote, even though we seem increasingly unsure about who we all are.

At a recent Senate Committee hearing, the Health Department’s Secretary, Professor Brendan Murphy, a voice of reason during the Covid lockdowns, was asked whether he could provide a definition of a woman. Diplomatically in these feisty times of battles over gender rhetoric, Professor Murphy chose to demur, saying that clearly this “area was a contested space.”

Election campaigns are certainly a contested space. Only decades ago, Australia’s political scientists confidently claimed that the major parties, Liberal-NP, and Labor, could each rely on 40% support, with only 10-20% of the electorate being genuine swinging voters or supporters of minor parties. Like the settled concept of biology, everything seems to have been flipped!

It is now argued that the major parties can rely on no more than 50% support between them; however, Australia’s method of preferential voting means that those who do not support either major party as their first choice must decide where they rate in their respective preferences.

So, who wins, come May 21 and what factors must be considered?

1. Incumbency- Only three Prime Ministers- Menzies, Hawke, and Howard- have won fourth terms in office, as Morrison is seeking to do on behalf of the coalition. Morrison will claim that his appeal is for his second term. Whilst people might believe that time is ripe for a change, Morrison will argue that now is not the right time to abandon his ship;

2. Covid-19-Until recently electoral results suggested that the pandemic favoured an incumbent government. As post-lockdown life becomes more established there may be a temptation amongst voters to rid themselves of governments associated with direr days. This seems to have been one of the factors in the recent defeat of the one-term Liberal Government of Steven Marshall in South Australia. Remember, the British electorate ousted Winston Churchill in 1945 after he led the Allies to victory. Sometimes, there is a collective wish for a fresh start;

3. The Economy-In 1949 Robert Menzies led his newly formed Liberal Party to their first victory offering voters relief from petrol rationing and to “go his way with a full tank of petrol.” Scott Morrison will be hoping that his decision to halve the petrol excise will deliver electoral bounty at the nation’s bowsers. Morrison will argue that his is the party that is best placed to continue the nation’s economic growth and focus on the forecast of the nation’s lowest unemployment rate since 1974 come year’s end, even if interest rates have begun their inevitable incremental increases;

4. National Security- This has always been the trump card for the LNP coalition. The calamity in Kyiv has given Morrison the chance of an election campaign that is tinted with khaki. He will no doubt remind us that the ALP does not have the resolve to meet present foreign policy challenges;

5. The disaffected-Democracy’s great promise is that it provides tangible benefits for all; however, Western democracies are increasingly struggling to convince large sections of voters of democracy’s benefits. Think of the enfranchised young who consider that both parties have failed the planet in terms of effective climate change policy*; think of the generation of university graduates who do not see themselves obtaining the permanent and rewarding employment that they were promised; think of the swathe of voters who cannot afford to save a deposit for their first home; think of those whose workplaces are increasingly offering only casual , short-term employment. Collectively, their disaffection may affect both parties;

6. Leadership-Only three Labor Party leaders have led their party into government since World War Two - Gough Whitlam in 1972, Bob Hawke in 1983 and Kevin Rudd in 2007. Anthony Albanese has not made a good start in his campaign to become the fourth. In 1993 the Opposition Leader, John Hewson, was embarrassed on national television when he could not explain whether his proposed GST would be paid on a birthday cake; in 2001 John Howard taunted Kim Beazley with the claim that he did not have the “ticker for the job”. In 2022 Anthony Albanese may become parodied as the leader who “did not know the figures for the job.” The ALP leader will hope that descriptions of the Prime Minister by some within his party as a "psycho", "liar", "hypocrite" and "unfit to hold the office of Prime Minister" will linger longer in voters' minds.

At his first campaign press conference Albanese could not cite either the current cash interest or the national unemployment rate. Two weeks out from the Budget, when Albanese is campaigning on the government’s inability to recognise cost of living pressures, such omissions were galling. Time will tell if they have fatally weakened his appeal. Former Prime Minister, Paul Keating, once described politics as the “ultimate high-wire act.” One slip and you are gone. In tennis, you can drop your serve, drop a set or two, but still recover to win. Politics is not so forgiving. One oversight, which can be repeated ad nauseum on a range of media, can derail campaigns. Just as in golf. This week Australia’s Cameron Smith was vying to win the Wimbledon of golf, the US Masters. One bad hole on the final round -a triple bogey on the 12th - and his chances were gone. Like Albanese, Smith has no one to blame but himself. There will be other major golf tournaments for Smith to win, but this is Albanese’s best and only chance to win government for his party.

7. Nothing is uniform! It is important to remember that elections are won based on seats won and lost, not overall percentages of votes. Neither major party benefits from increasing its primary votes in ‘safe’ seats. The election will be decided on which party can gain primary and preferential support in the ‘swing’ seats, all of which have their idiosyncratic factors at play. Just as factors that influence voters vary from electorate to electorate, so do factors vary across State borders.

8. Summing it all up: Morrison is defending a wafer-thin majority seeking an unlikely fourth term for the Coalition. His own personal standing has diminished; however, recent polling rates him as the preferred Prime Minister over Albanese, pre-gaffe! The ALP is likely to gain seats in Western Australia and is hopeful of gains in Tasmania, South Australia, and Queensland. The government will hope that the electorate, even if begrudgingly, will judge it to be a safer, more competent option, especially in terms of better managing the economy and national security.

The prospect of a larger number of independents being elected may complicate the result even further. How ironic it would be if our churn of Prime Ministers -Morrison is the first to seek re-election as a Prime Minister since Howard in 2007- that began with the Rudd/Gillard changeover of 2010 and the subsequent minority Gillard/ Rudd governments saw another minority government in Canberra. Whichever party wins, they are certain not to have a majority in the Senate, which will ensure another three years of legislation by negotiation. If it is a tight contest, Roland Garros may have crowned its 2022 champions, before our Governor-General commissions a government to lead the 47th Parliament. As Julia Gillard said on election night in 2010, we may be able to say that all the people have spoken, but we might not be clear as to what the message is until days after May 21.

More than ever, it is safe to say that the election is Albanese’s to lose.

The results of this year’s French Open may be easier to predict. The French, in the spirit of vive la difference, will probably allow Djokovic to play. Medvedev is injured. Nadal is resting preparing for another assault on his beloved clay. Zverev will play but should be serving a suspension for at least the rest of the year for his attack on his umpire’s chair in a Doubles match in Acapulco. If Will Smith receives a decade ban for his maniacal outburst in slapping the host of the Oscars, then Zverev should be serving at least a one-year ban for his frenzied behaviour.

Tsitsipas will play, but his form has been poor since the Australian Open; however, he was a finalist last year and led Djokovic two sets to love. His recent win in the Monte Carlo Masters, comfortably beating Zverev in a semi-final, may suggest a timely springtime renaissance has come. The outcome may well be decided away from the court: the Men’s seedings will be crucial in determining which of the favoured players has the less taxing road to the final. Whatever the seedings, who would bet against either Nadal, Zverev or Djokovic winning? Mind you, I have two astute pundits who are tipping that “the next Nadal,” Carlos Alcaraz, fresh from his precocious victory at the Miami Masters could claim the title. Can an eighteen-year-old deny Nadal a fourteenth title?

In the Women’s draw, Iga Swiatek, in Barty’s absence, has swept all before her as the world's new No.1 ranked female player, claiming the Sunshine Double of the Indian Wells and Miami Masters titles. She will be a warm favourite to win a second French title. This time it will be as the number one seed, a far cry from when she won as an unheralded unseeded player in 2020.

As always, there is everything to play for. Nous tous! Let the ballot boxes be filled and the tennis balls bounce!

*In terms of the passing parade, the loss of Moses (Moss) Cass at the age of ninety-five should be noted. He was Australia’s first Minister for the Environment, having been appointed by Gough Whitlam. Long before the High Court granted the Federal government constitutional powers to protect World Heritage sites within Australia, Moss Cass used his Ministerial discretion to prevent the granting of a licence that would have allowed the mining and export of mineral sands from Queensland's Fraser Island. His decision was upheld by a 3-2 decision of the High Court. Thanks to Moss Cass, Fraser Island remains one of Australia’s and the world’s pristine environmental jewels.

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